All Hail Breaks Loose: Severe Weather in France

Fiery sunset before a storm

I sat in the car, immobilised in the middle of the Toulouse bypass, while someone pelted it with rocks. At least, that’s how it seemed. This was my first experience of the kind of hail that can fall here during a thunderstorm. It happened about 15 years ago, but parts of France have been experiencing these destructive chunks of ice during the past week.

Hail hell

It’s very scary to be caught in a hailstorm. On that occasion, I was returning from Paris to Toulouse by plane on a sultry late May day. During the descent, the sky blackened, and the plane was tossed about. Grateful to have landed safely, I drove out of the car park and straight into a barrage of ice.

These weren’t pea-sized pellets. They were uneven frozen lumps about 8 cm across that were hurled out of the sky at a frightening velocity, pounding the bodywork like grapeshot. I expected the windscreen to give way under the assault. Driving onwards was not an option.

This lasted for about five minutes. To me, cowering inside, it seemed like much longer. The windscreen held, fortunately, but the hail took out a headlight and the car was pockmarked all over.

On arriving home, I found that hail had fallen here, too, but it was smaller and less destructive, except that it had shredded my geraniums.

Some communes in Dordogne and Charente, followed by Burgundy, didn’t escape so lightly this week. The hail destroyed roofs and smashed windows, and the high winds snapped trees and demolished fences – not once but several days in a row. This was the dénouement of the record high temperatures for mid-June that had the country gasping last weekend. The thermometer nudged 40C (104F) here and soared even higher elsewhere.

We were lucky to avoid the worst of it. Météo France kept issuing dark threats about grêle (hail), but we had only a couple of moderate thunderstorms and some much-needed rain.

History repeats itself

To us, these events seem exceptional, and their increasing regularity may well be. But history shows that their intensity is not unusual.  

By chance, this week I read Emile Guillaumin’s La Vie d’un Simple (1904), a fictionalised autobiography of a sharecrop farmer in the Bourbonnais in the 19th century. In addition to the social and political upheavals of the era, he experiences every hazard the weather can throw at him.

Given last week’s storms, I was particularly struck by his description of a devastating thunder and hailstorm that hit the Bourbonnais and the Morvan in June 1861. The suddenness and violence of the storm plus a tornado, took people by surprise. It flattened buildings, ripped the ripening ears off the wheat, plucked birds in mid-flight and shredded vegetation. Such descriptions of extreme weather events, based on fact, are common in novels about the French countryside.

My research instincts whetted, I wondered if 1861 was a particularly bad year in general. It was. After a very cold winter, when ice floes floated down the Seine, torrential rain and meltwater raised its level in Paris by 7m. Late frosts in April (sounds familiar) damaged vines and fruit crops, while a damp early summer rotted hay and wheat in the fields. Then there was the devastating hailstorm.

As if all that weren’t enough, the Hérault suffered torrential rain in October 1861. This is not uncommon there during that season, but the 1861 episode seems to have been especially serious. The deluge of water off the mountains was so powerful that it washed coffins and bones from the cemetery of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières and deposited them on the agricultural fairground. I wonder who had the grisly job of clearing that lot up.

You get years like that.

This weekend, the temperature has halved, which is welcome, and the garden has received several soakings. I am not anxious for the canicule (heatwave) to return in a hurry.

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  1. Interesting to see proof of extreme weather events already in 1861! It seems like reassuring evidence that nothing is really changing, although I suppose the climatologists will tell us that what has changed is the frequency of these disruptions. We are also having a bit of a roller coaster ride weather-wise here in Central Switzerland and we still have a pock-marked exterior blind from last year’s hail storm. Seems insurance companies the world over take forever to cough up!

    Liked by 1 person

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